“It’s not the end of the world. There’ll be other opportunities. You did your best and at least you tried.” – People trying to make you feel better
Sure, rejection is innately a part of filmmaking; everyone knows you have to press forward, live, learn, and grow.
I wanted to write an inspiring piece: something to help you all live with rejection, learn from it, and keep positive attitudes. But, as I was writing, I couldn’t shake this thought:
“Maybe it’s okay to be pissed off in the face of rejection? Maybe saving face and acting positive isn’t always the answer?”
A positive outlook and acceptance are crucial, but it’s also essential to feel what you feel in the moment. That’s what the bulk of this article will explore: how to find positivity through rejection, not in spite of it.
I hope any filmmaker or artist Googling rejection will find this post and feel reassured: it’s okay to be frustrated. What you do with that frustration is what truly makes the difference.
“I’M A FALURE” — OUR RECENT BOUT WITH REJECTION
As many of you know, our recent pitch video, Bison Island, made the top 20 semi-final round in Project Greenlight’s Digital Series Contest. Unfortunately, we didn’t make the top 5 final round.
Of course this was difficult news. We’d put a lot of work into our pitch and campaign, and were excited about the possibilities.
The competition was solid and we were honored to be among them. We wholeheartedly wish the best of luck to the top 5 contestants!
That said, there’s no escaping that brutal feeling in the pit of your stomach when you don’t reach a goal. It’s inevitable in art, business, and life. It can force us to dive deep into our shortcomings, focus on the negative, and—in the worst cases—become bitter or jaded.
As filmmakers, we will all face rejection throughout our careers. Whether you’re not accepted into a festival, turned down by financiers, not granted a development deal, or turned down by a potential collaborator, it’s all a part of the game.
Most consolations from friends and family feel oversimplified, and rarely help quell the burn.
The reality is, filmmakers are artists and artists are exceedingly sensitive. I’m fairly certain that “exceedingly sensitive” is the definition of “artist” in certain dictionaries.
GRIEF AND REJECTION
Why shouldn’t we be upset? There, I said it! I said it without slandering peers or institutions. I said it without bitterness or disdain.
The day we received word that we hadn’t made the final round, my instant reaction was to get overly positive. I reassured myself, Mike, and those around me, “Such is life and, of course, we’ll be okay.”
But it soon became apparent that I was doing this more for others than myself. I slowly spiraled through the classic stages of grief. Here’s how that played out:
Stage 1: Denial. There must be a misprint? Perhaps something will transpire in the next few hours that will adjust this outcome in our favor (sort of arrogant, right?).
Stage 2: Anger. This took a while to set in. I found myself overcome with inexplicable frustration, and many thoughts not worth repeating or illuminating here.
Stage 3: Bargaining. I wondered—sometimes aloud—if there was something I could do to repair this? In this case, bargaining felt more like justifying the hard work we’d put in.
Stage 4: Depression. This lasted roughly 24 hours. I didn’t want to talk to a single soul, confront any obstacles, or work on anything at all. Everything seemed futile. Let’s just say this was a bleak day.
Stage 5: Acceptance. This is where I am as I write this post—ironically, right back where I began when we received the initial news. Acceptance looks quite similar to the fo-positivity I employed early on, the only difference being acceptance is genuine.
THE TRUTH ABOUT REJECTION
The emotional journey of rejection will take you through unending possibilities for why you and your work didn’t get accepted. Early on in the grief, possibilities will likely involve malicious thoughts about your competition, or those already achieving your goals.
I know it’s impolite to admit that, but it’s real and we’ve all felt it. We’re human, which can be difficult.
Over time and with a little introspection, you’ll hopefully realize that the real causes for rejection of your work generally look like one, or some combination of these:
- Your project was not what they were looking for. Whether you pitched a script, entered a contest, or bidded on a freelance gig, this is the most likely explanation for rejection. If the quality of your work is up to par, your project might not have been what those producers, judges, or clients thought would resonate or solve their problem. It’s that simple and no reflection on you or your abilities; wrong place at the wrong time.
- You missed a rule. Every type of submission or pitch has rules. There are things you should do for a favorable outcome. If you neglect them, you’ll probably feel it. If you didn’t make the cut, think long and hard about any steps you may have missed, and whether or not you could have paid closer attention, or taken one less risk.
- You didn’t fit the bigger motif or plan. Film festivals are well known for programming based on niches or trends that are taking off. If your movie doesn’t fit a festival’s programming needs, you probably won’t get in. You may have a masterpiece on your hands, but it doesn’t fall into the festival’s big-picture view. The same is true of financiers’, competitions’, and clients’ criteria.
- You were one of many. Narrowing down finalists or promising candidates can be very difficult for anyone. Our Greenlight submission ranked top 20 out of over 700, which was already a big deal and placed us with very competent competitors. This means that narrowing down top 5 was ultimately very subjective, based on the panel’s tastes and goals. Because there were so many submissions to begin with, the decisions were made even more difficult, as there was likely a lot of quality that got shelved.
- What you submitted just wasn’t good. Sorry. I know it’s not the most politically correct thing to say, but it’s a reality. There are submissions to every contest, profession, and program that are just not up to snuff. But, I feel like most people who submit subpar work know what they have, and submit anyway. Maybe they were short on time, or maybe they thought they’d take a leap and just see. Either way, honestly, good on them! Good on anyone who puts their work out there!
Irrelevant of how you come to terms with rejection, remind yourself of this:
“It wasn’t meant to be.”
No matter the outcome when you put your work out there, the result is what it is. At some point you’ll have to accept things as they are and move forward. Be sure to spend time thinking of the variables at play, and what you could have possibly done better, without beating yourself up too much or being defeatist.
Don’t let anyone tell you to move on quicker than you’re ready to or you’ll deny yourself valuable perspective and insights that can help you grow in your craft. You can’t rewrite the past, and what’s done is done. But, you can improve on the past in the future.
Michael and I were definitely let down by the outcome of our Greenlight attempt, and we spent time discussing the variables at play. Little parts of the 5 possible contributors to rejection all played into why we felt we didn’t make the finals.
Did those realizations make the sadness disappear? Of course not. But they did allow us the space to be sad while logically processing abounding lessons.
RESPONDING TO REJECTION
Show gratitude for the considerations. No matter what, if you made it to the point of being rejected, someone saw and responded to your work. Be grateful that your work was seen, analyzed, and that you had the courage to put it out there.
Be gracious to others. Avoid demeaning the competition, or those who are a little ahead of you. It can be hard, but denigrating others gets you nowhere. Take accountability for your work, your standing, and your decisions.
Be thankful for having made it as far as you did. Simply reframing obstacles as opportunities for growth changes the power dynamic of rejection. Instead of seeing rejection as another hurdle to overcome, you can instead position your brain to feel empowered and grow from loss. In that sense, you’ve made it one step closer to your ultimate goal, not one step further from this singular milestone.
Seek other opportunities that go hand-in-hand with rejection. Maybe you met some valuable contacts in the process of submitting a rejected project? Maybe you tried a new filmmaking trick you can add to your arsenal? Maybe it gave you great exposure? Instead of simply acting positively, identify positive outcomes that truly exist.
WHAT DOESN’T KILL YOU
Don’t let the rejection dictate your future or self esteem. Life is full of rejections, big and small, and if you let them own you now, they’ll own you forever.
Instead of letting a challenge overcome you, make it your wings.
Boxers spend innumerable hours watching other fighters fight, but they also review their own fights. They watch their own footwork, dips, dodges, jabs, and hooks. They see where they could improve, and what they’ll need to compensate for with various opponents.
Do the same for your competitive endeavors. Producing art is subjective and personal. Pitching something or entering a competition is a gateway to creating art. There’s much to improve upon with each go-around, or you may never have a chance to create great work.
It’s been said many times, for all eternity, but I’ll say it here: rejection builds character. All I’ll add is this: rejection builds character if you let it.
It’s difficult to do, especially if you’re an artist-type. There will always be temptation to dwell on the sadness or live in it a little too long.
Let rejection sit with you for a while, but know that a time will soon come where you’ll be forced to move on. It’s better to get moving before hitting that threshold.
Your friends and family will get tired of hearing about it. Your peers will keep growing and moving ahead. So why stay docile, beating yourself up, wondering about the what ifs?
The day Michael and I got word that we didn’t make Greenlight’s top 5, I immediately set up a meeting with my co-writer to get started on something new. We got to work right away and are developing something really exciting that doesn’t require a green light from anybody but us.
Start the process of moving on as soon as you can, and let that run parallel to your organic processing of rejection’s lessons.
Give yourself a timeline to grieve. For the Greenlight loss, I allowed myself 48 hours to be truly bummed out, process the disappointment, be serly with people, and beat myself up. Sisters and brothers: that was a brutal 48 hours.
But after those two days, I knew it was time to lift my head up and get back to the rest of my life. You know why? There are more rejections to come! There are so many more disappointments down the road. If I spend too much time on one, I may miss the next.
Rejections are a bright, flashing sign that you’re getting closer to what you want—you’re getting your work, craft, and personality into the world. As filmmakers, that’s what we aim for.
This isn’t our first rejection over here in ShoHawk land, and hopefully it won’t be our last.
The same goes for your most recent rejection, and your next. Allow your feelings to be felt, without letting them carry you away.
Ultimately, there’s a classy way to deal with just about anything:
Thanks for all of your support through the Greenlight process! We’re so greatful to each and every one of our readers, and we promise there are great things to come. Have you experienced a shattering rejection? Tell us how you bounced back in the comments! We stay strong together 🙂